Government & Politics

Steve Kraske: Sam Brownback could be the most consequential governor in Kansas history

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback laid out a bold agenda in his State of the State address.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback laid out a bold agenda in his State of the State address. The Kansas City Star

Begin with one idea that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has proposed — the elimination of the state income tax.

Then consider the many other big ideas that he has trotted out during his tenure. The notion that he now ranks as Kansas’ most consequential governor becomes something to ponder.

On Thursday, Brownback pitched a rewrite of the complex school finance formula that accounts for half the state general fund and affects every kid in the state.

He wants to pick Kansas Supreme Court judges a new way. He has called for the shift of local elections into the fall with an eye toward electing more conservatives. He has privatized Medicaid, transformed the idea of welfare-to-work and offered a 50-year water conservation plan that may prove to be his most important move.

Voting laws have changed. The Kansas Turnpike is under new management. He extended a penny sales tax and is looking at hikes in sin taxes. Long-standing programs have been cut and cut again.

Pretty soon you get the idea that Kansas government itself is going through seismic shifts. To this longtime statehouse scribe, the changes are simply breathtaking, and they’re coming fast.

“Staggering” is the word Bob Beatty uses for it. He’s a Washburn University political scientist who has studied Kansas governors.

They typically are former legislators, meaning they came from the statehouse family. Accustomed to the ways things had been done, these governors opted for incremental change.

Compared with Brownback, many took mere baby steps.

The question, of course, is whether all this change puts Kansas in a better place. A 1960s governor, John Anderson, was fond of saying that change for change’s sake didn’t mean it was good.

Brownback, who has said he regrets calling his tax cuts an “experiment,” may soon regret the most revealing line of the State of the State speech.

Brownback was talking Thursday about his tax cuts when he noted that some consider his course too bold.

“Well,” he said, “I’m the sort of guy who would have sent Alex Gordon from third base.”

That’s a reference to Game 7 of last season’s World Series. Gordon might have made it and altered baseball history.

So Brownback is a gambler. And in most gambles there’s a tremendous upside.

The problem is, most baseball experts concluded that if Gordon had headed home, he was a dead duck.

To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or send email to

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